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Preseason Game #3: Film Room | Strategic Pick-and-Roll Defensive Change

Throughout the preseason, the Los Angeles Clippers have employed a new defensive strategy when guarding pick-and-rolls. In the game against the Charlotte Hornets, they really showcased it.

Ever since Doc Rivers arrived in Los Angeles, the team has employed a fairly aggressive strategy when attacking pick-and-rolls defensively. For instance, they always liked to blitz the ball-handler with a big man because it forced the ball-handler into a tough decision; he either had to pass the ball through a bevy of flailing arms or he had to try and beat two people at once. It’s one of the things that led to the Los Angeles Clippers having one of the most successful pick-and-roll defenses in the league when it came to ball-handlers and efficiency. However, through the first three preseason games, the team has seemed to alter their strategy to a great degree. Instead of the blitzing style, we now are seeing a more conservative style that allows ball-handlers to dribble downhill towards the big man instead of having pressure applied directly. The jury is still out on this change.

This Film Room has been one that’s been waiting to be written since this new pick-and-roll scheme has been noticed during the very first preseason game against the Denver Nuggets. It was held off until now. Larson Ishii and Caden Kinard both did a wonderful job talking about the Clippers’ new defensive scheme, but the latest preseason game against the Charlotte Hornets really showcased it. What you’re about to watch is just from the first quarter since they used the scheme in such a high-volume throughout the game and we wouldn’t get out of this Film Room until next week. Roll it!

After a bucket, the Clippers come down on defense and get situated while Kemba Walker dribbles into the frontcourt. Walker passes off to a slicing Nicolas Batum and the Hornets immediately go into a little pick-and-roll action with Batum and Marvin Williams. As Williams runs up to set the pick on the nearside wing, J.J. Redick does a great job of icing the entire set. Williams come off of setting the pick and pops out wide to the arc so that Batum can throw him a pass. Batum’s pass is a little wild and Pablo Prigioni is able to knife in and steal it. Prigioni then passes to Blake Griffin to start the fast break. Griffin occupies two defenders in the same space and Redick fills the gap on the right wing. Griffin finds with Redick with a nifty little behind-the-back pass of sorts and Redick nails the baseline jumper.

Let’s talk strategy here. On the initial action, watch how Prigioni actually denies a pass back to Walker. It forces Batum to run the pick-and-roll with Williams. From there, Redick appears to get crossed over by Batum, but it also looks like he was trying to get outside of Batum’s right foot in an attempt to ice the play. That’s great strategy since it forces the ball-handler towards the help defender. Griffin is the big man defender here and instead of running up to hassle the ball-handler, he hangs back and just corrals the play long enough to force Batum into a decision. Redick bumps into Williams to disrupt the pop on the pick-and-roll and the fact Prigioni is hanging around the play as a rover makes it ideal for the Clippers once the pass is thrown haphazardly. Prigioni scoops it and the rest of the play unfolds without a hitch.

In the past, the Clippers would have had Griffin run up as hard as he could when the pick was set and push the ball-handler up against the sideline. Now, it looks like they want the bigs to act as a safety blanket and force the ball-handlers into tougher mid-range shots or passing lanes. The other thing on this particular play is that DeAndre Jordan is watching everything play out while he stays in the paint guarding his man. Had Marvin Williams rolled to the basket, Jordan would have been there waiting for him. Even if the pass is made to Williams on the pop, it’s a difficult situation for Charlotte because the Clippers did have this defended pretty well all-around.

Several minutes later we see something similar to the first play up above; a pick-and-roll that leads to a runout for J.J. Redick. What happens here is that Kemba Walker receives a pick from Al Jefferson on the right wing and then Walker turns the corner and dribbles downhill towards DeAndre Jordan before throwing a little jump pass back to Jefferson. Due to Jordan being so far away, Jefferson takes a widely uncontested right elbow jumper that clanks off the front of the rim. The rebound comes off to Blake Griffin and immediately it starts the Clippers fast break opportunity. Wesley Johnson fills the right corner spot, Griffin takes up three defenders with his dribble in the middle of the floor, and Redick fills the right wing area. Griffin finds Redick and the ball finds the bottom of the net for a three.

The offense is just the icing on the cake here and showcases how great Griffin is as not only a ball-handler, but as a decision maker and difference maker. The real stuff we’re here for is the defense. As Jefferson goes to set the pick for Walker initially, watch how Pablo Prigioni turns his body in such a way to ice the pick-and-roll. He then stays on the hip of Walker while Jordan sits in a defensive posture in case Walker attempts to turn the baseline and head to the rim. While Jefferson misses a jumper he has the ability to make, forcing a team into mid-range jumpers is what you want to do. Avoiding giving up layups to roll men or threes to the ball-handler is definitely a positive. If this new approach greatly diminishes each one then the team can call this new style a success.

Shortly after that last play, we get another pick-and-roll that the Clippers play strategically safe. Kemba Walker dribbles into the frontcourt and receives a screen from former top five pick Cody Zeller. As the pick is being set, Pablo Prigioni forces Walker towards the right side in order to cutoff any potential crossover lane and Walker obliges. Blake Griffin sees Walker start to come off the pick and gets down into a lower defensive stance. Walker comes downhill momentarily and Griffin backpedals to give him space on the potential drive, but that’s not needed as Walker pulls up from the right elbow for a contested jumper thanks to Prigioni coming back into the play and getting a hand up. Shot misses and the rebound is gathered in by Griffin.

This is another instance of what this type of defense can force a ball-handler to do. There are not many options for Walker here once he turns the corner on the screen. It’s either pull up for a jumper, try and get to the rim, or attempt a very dangerous pass to Jeremy Lamb who is hovering near the top of the arc. The issue with option one, as you can see, is that it’s a tough shot. Option two isn’t much better since Griffin and DeAndre Jordan would be there to contest any attempt near the basket. And, lastly, option three could lead to a turnover since J.J. Redick is right there. By playing the big back on the pick-and-roll, it seems like opponents have to take far tougher shots than they normally would if the bigs blitzed them.

This play starts as a partial fast break for the Hornets with Jeremy Lin being the ball-handler up the court. He weasels his way into the paint when the Clippers attempt to stop the ball and fires a pass into the waiting hands of Kemba Walker in the far corner. Walker then receives a screen from Cody Zeller that Blake Griffin hangs back on. As Walker comes off the screen and dribbles near the key, Griffin stays glued to a rolling Zeller. However, it’s not just that. While Griffin has an outstretched hand keeping Zeller at bay, he’s also between both Walker and Zeller which negates any real possibility of a pass over the top. This forces Walker to make another tough decision and allows the primary defender to get back into the play. Walker eventually has to settle for a tough jumper from the free-throw line area and makes it. However, that undersells what happens here.

Look at this play as everything comes together. J.J. Redick forces Walker into the big and then is able to recover back thanks to Griffin’s heady defense. That defense makes Walker hold the ball longer than he had anticipated and it forces him to take a jumper that isn’t highly efficient whatsoever. Despite making this shot, it shows you the benefits of this system if the types of shots being generated aren’t exactly easy or from high-efficiency areas. Walker makes the shot, but it doesn’t take away from the overall success that this system appears to be having – at least on the surface.

On the next Charlotte possession, we see another pick-and-roll. Nicolas Batum dribbles past midcourt and Paul Pierce is the primary defender on him. As Batum is dribbling, Al Jefferson runs up to set him a screen. However, Pierce does a great job of making sure he forces Batum towards DeAndre Jordan by icing the pick-and-roll. Batum comes off the screen to his left and makes a jump pass back to Jefferson, who is standing at the left elbow. Jefferson gets another wide open look at a jumper but, yet again, misses it. There’s a fight for the rebound between Cody Zeller and Blake Griffin, but the ball goes out of bounds and back to Charlotte. Overall on this play, though, we get to see how little the Clippers care about mid-range jumpers for their opponents. They’re not threes and they’re not layups so the team is totally fine with the opposition taking them; especially when it’s a big man doing so.

This possession picks up where the last one ended. Charlotte is inbounding the ball from the baseline with Jeremy Lin and then they run two separate screen plays here. Lin inbounds to Al Jefferson and he just passes to Kemba Walker. From there, the two of them enter a pick-and-roll that sees Jamal Crawford force Walker back to the right. DeAndre Jordan stays low defensively and Walker tries to beat him to the rim with a nifty dribble, but he ultimately has to pull the ball back out because Jordan doesn’t bite on anything he does. Walker passes to Nicolas Batum, who is being defended by Paul Pierce, and then Batum does something really interesting – he fires a bullet to Cody Zeller and sprints into a catch-and-shoot three off of a Zeller screen. The three attempt misses and the Clippers finally get a rebound to end the possession.

Two things are very noticeable here: the way DeAndre Jordan defended the Walker-Jefferson pick-and-roll and the way Blake Griffin defended the Batum-Zeller portion. What did they both have in common? The big man sat back and let the ball-handler make the tough decision for them. Jordan did a great job of stopping what Walker wanted to do, but Batum still got a quality look on his end. In some capacity, Griffin has to step up there and help Pierce, but, at the same time, Pierce doesn’t get washed out by the screen and still defends the three-point attempt. It’s a tough shot for Batum. It’s certainly one he’s capable of making, but it’s still a tough shot.

There’s nothing sexy about playing pick-and-rolls this way. It’s certainly not as crazy looking as the way they’ve done it in the past, but it might be just as effective – or even more so. This play illustrates how playing two different types of screen-and-rolls – although the second one is more of a screen handoff – with the same type of strategy can still pay off. On just one overall possession, the Clippers forced Charlotte into three tough decisions and two jumpers that they didn’t look comfortable taking. Perhaps there is something to this new scheme.

Two-thirds of the way through the first quarter, Kemba Walker dribbles up and passes off to Cody Zeller, who then feeds Jeremy Lin coming around a sideline screen from Walker. This is another screen handoff by Charlotte and another one that Blake Griffin sits back on. As Zeller runs up to hand the ball off to Lin and screens J.J. Redick, Griffin gives Lin a ton of space. The reason for this is because Zeller is such a great roller to the basket and you’d rather force a player into a deep mid-range jumper. Redick has little time to recover after going under the screen and Lin takes a foot-on-the-line two that goes in.

The defense pays for the way they played the pick-and-roll here, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they played it poorly or shouldn’t ever do this. Look at the shot Lin ends up taking. It’s not a great one. If a guy makes that jumper all night, you just live with it no matter how great of a shooter he is. Redick could have fought over the top of the screen, but going under it is also fine here. One other thing, watch how Paul Pierce denies a pass to Nicolas Batum after Zeller receives the ball at the top of the arc. It does look like all five guys are in sync here and that bodes well for the team going forward.

Near the three minute mark, we get Kemba Walker dribbling into screens being set by both Cody Zeller and Al Jefferson. Jamal Crawford fights over the top of a screen, but Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan both hang back to see which big man is going to roll to the basket. The answer is none. Zeller pops out towards the three-point line and Jefferson sort of just trots towards Griffin near the right elbow. Walker turns the corner on the screen, gets downhill towards Jordan, and fires up a nice little floater that goes in before Jordan can react. Initially, this play looks like a failure defensively. Yet, is it really?

Look at the shot Walker has to take. He attempts a running 11-foot floater. A defense will take that type of shot nearly all the time considering the alternatives on the court. Had the Clippers hedged hard on this screen, it opens up a rolling lane for either Jefferson or Zeller and makes the defense have to rotate even more. That, in turn, opens up the possibility of a ball rotation three to someone like either Jeremy Lin or Nicolas Batum. Playing the pick-and-roll like this diminishes the amount of threes a team is likely to give up simply because they’re not caught out of position as often. If these are the types of shots the Clippers have to live with opponents taking (and making), then they won’t be too sad about it.

There’s a funky angle on this play, but it actually helps us out because you’re able to see the spacing as it takes place. Brian Roberts is the ball-handler and Cody Zeller knifes through the key to set him a screen on the left wing. Jamal Crawford gets washed out by the hip of Zeller and Roberts takes a pull-up 18-footer that rattles in. The defender here is Josh Smith and he plays this like every other big man has played Charlotte’s screen game all night. He sits back and lets the ball-handler make the decision for him. Roberts does and it leads to two points for the Hornets.

Before we move on, just notice how the rest of the defense reacts to this play as it unfolds. When Roberts crosses over right-to-left and comes off the screen, Lance Stephenson doesn’t even more off of Jeremy Lin in the corner. On the weakside, we see Paul Pierce giving Marvin Williams space, but it’s nothing major. He’s not coming over to help on anything. At the top of the arc, we see DeAndre Jordan sort of just sagging back into the paint rather than sticking with Spencer Hawes the whole way. However, part of that is because Zeller rolls to the hoop after the screen and someone has to pick him up. It definitely looks like this pick-and-roll strategy is something the team is buying into and making a concerted effort of doing all the time.

On the final play that gets shown, we see the final play of the first quarter for Charlotte’s offense. It comes in a semi-transition state, but it still features a pretty big display of a pick-and-roll. Brian Roberts receives the ball from Marvin Williams and holds it up for a minute before Cody Zeller can run up to set him a pick. Jamal Crawford tries to ice the ball-handler back to the right and he is successful. Roberts crosses over left-to-right and sprints downhill into a pull-up 16-foot mid-range jumper that goes in. It’s nothing out of the norm to how the Clippers have played the screen game all night, but the main defender here to watch is a new guy; Cole Aldrich.

Aldrich lets Roberts dribble towards him and then just sort of watches as Roberts takes the jumper. There’s no real contest there, nor should there be based on what the other bigs have done all game long in similar situations. In theory, Roberts just made two mid-range jumpers in a row that weren’t exactly easy. On this one, Crawford fights back to help with a contest at the last second, but it’s all for naught. If these are the types of shots that the Clippers are giving up on a routine basis this season, then perhaps all this emphasis on a new style of pick-and-roll defense will be here to stay.

We still have no idea if this new method is going to be used in the regular season. It could just be something the team is doing during the preseason to avoid showing all their cards beforehand. Maybe as the season gets underway – and we get into the nitty-gritty of the year – things will change. For now, this is what the team is doing and it’s been a major staple of the first three preseason games that they’ve gone through. It’s been something we’ve noticed, taken note of, and decided to talk about. This will definitely be something to watch in the next few games.